Science

Researchers teach rats to drive, find out it reduces stress

Researchers teach rats to drive, find out it reduces stress”

Automobiles may be a human invention but, as it turns out, we might not be the only species that are able to operate them. Why are we saying that?

Rats are learning how to drive tiny cars at the University of Richmond.

The team was led by Kelly Lambert of the University of Richmond. Rats have been witnessed to have showcased intelligent behaviour such as recognizing different objects and being able to find food after finding their way out of a complex maze and that led the researchers to conduct the experiment.

Scientists at the University of Richmond report that driving an electric auto makes lab rats happy.

Lambert and her colleagues at the University of Richmond trained the rats by constantly rewarding them with food every time they moved the plastic vehicle forward. The cars used for the study had aluminium floors and 3 copper rods specifically created to function as a steering wheel. The vehicle was placed in a rectangular track that featured aluminum floor. When the rats took hold of the copper bars and stood on the floor, it moved the contraption. The three bars, upon being pressed individually, could also be used for turning the auto left, right, or staying in the center lane. The researchers have so far been able to train a total of 17 rats to drive the small vehicle.

The rats were rewarded with Froot Loops cereal when they drove to the end of the enclosure.

In time, the scientists placed the food further away from the mini-vehicle so that the rats had to tune their driving abilities to reach the food and eat it. "They learned to navigate the auto in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward", says head researcher Kelly Lambert.

As the rats were raised in two different environments - a lab and what the research team termed an "enriched environment" - those raised in the latter became significantly better drivers than those of the former. A chemical analysis of the animals' poop after four months of training sessions showed lower levels of the stress hormone corticosterone and higher levels of the stress-busting hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). The ratio of dehydroepiandrosterone to corticosterone in the rats' feces increased over the course of their driving training. She said the task apparently increased the emotional resilience of the animals, and could have implications for humans. "In humans, we call this self-efficacy or agency", Lambert tells Klein. I do believe that rats are smarter than most people perceive them to be and that most animals are smarter in unique ways than we think'.



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